A General View of the Coal Strike

By Talcott Williams

A GREAT anthracite coal strike, laying idle 160,000 men and boys and affecting the profits of some $1,000,000,000 of capital, is not the simple thing many people think it. In a great streetcar strike the strikers are all on a parity. In textile strikes they are of two or three closely related classes of labor. So in railroad strikes. In iron and steel they are of two classes; but of these only one, the skilled laborer, is admitted to the union or seriously regarded, the mere laborer being excluded. Lastly, and most important of all, these are all parts of an industrial machine in which the plant of production is closely geared to the need of consumption.

The anthracite coal mines have three distinct classes of labor,—miners, laborers, and men employed on engines and pumps and as mine bosses. The last class is employed through the year; pumps must be kept going whether mining is in progress or not. Their posts are permanent. The laborers work, as already described, at loading what miners have detached. The miner employs them, and receives in general two-thirds of the proceeds of the joint labor. The contract miner's object is to detach in the shortest time each day the largest amount of coal. Hours do not count with him. If he can gain in 200 days of 4 to 6 hours the wage of a year,—as in 1901,—he is satisfied. Nothing helps him but a pro rata advance in the sum paid for "mining" a ''ton" of coal. The laborer must work a ten-hour day,—the miner sees to that,—and the laborer has two objects: he is working at day labor in the hope of becoming a miner. This was once easy, when the anthracite output was expanding, and more miners were constantly needed, selected from laborers speaking the same tongue and of the same race as the miners. To become a miner has grown to be hard. The laborer must by law work two years in a mine; he must pass an examination,—stiff for him,—in English, not his native tongue, and he must be selected for a "chamber" by a boss of another race, who prefers miners of his own tongue and stock,—English, Irish, or Scotch. Pay and hours mean less to the laborer than promotion, and a larger share in the joint wage of himself and the miner. Lastly, the men employed on pumps, engines, etc., care nothing for the tonnage, are free from the irregular days of anthracite miners, and are interested only either in reducing hours or increasing per diem pay, or both.

To weld these three diverse and conflicting interests in one union, and get them to strike together, is a remarkable proof of the strong tendency toward organization, and the determination of labor, in large homogeneous bodies of artisans, to trust to the collective rather than the personal bargain. This determination may be wise or unwise. Carried too far, it has dealt English industry a visible blow in the world competition of the day. The tendency exists. It must be reckoned with. No capital, however anxious to receive the largest output at the lowest cost, can wisely disregard it. As in the case of the United States Steel Corporation, it is wiser to accept it, and be guided by it in reaching a yearly standard of wages; but to keep "open" establishments, where men working free from union rules can provide, by the largest practicable output and individual initiative, a standard of product which matches and supplements the union's standard of wages.

The anthracite coal strike of September, 1900, was primarily for miners' wages. Pro rata, it advanced the wages of the mine laborers. Promotion having been, for eighteen months, slow during a period of great prosperity and unprecedented output, the laborers last winter demanded a larger proportionate share on the weigh check or aggregate paid to the miner and the laborer. This plea was disregarded by the union. Had there not been a strike led by miners against operators, there would probably soon have been a strike led by laborers against miners. If the strike of September, 1900, was primarily for miners' wages, the strike now was primarily for laborers and engine men, pumpers, etc., and as to organization primarily for "control."

The coal mined is coal and slate. The coal paid for is coal, alone. Amazing as it may seem the net coal mined is a matter of guess. The guess is close. It is like all guessing when men guess often, generally accurate. But it is a guess; and being a guess, is at times highly inaccurate. The actual coal mined is at times more than the coal for whose mining men are paid. Nothing could belittle worse. It irritates men. It loads the company weigh-sheets with the smell and savor of injustice. Like the old charge made for powder, it is a survival which, in the total, works little injustice. But in paying wages, the employer must not only be just,—he must seem just. When the men asked for a net coal weighing, they asked for something not easily done, costing some readjustment, trouble, and expense, but wise and worth, in reducing a sense of injustice, such loss of a shaving of profit and such increase of clerical force as it might demand. In such increase of return to labor as this brought, the Slav laborer would share.

The demand of the miner's union for an eight-hour day for pumpers, engineers, etc., was intended to give this class of permanent labor a reason for coming out. They hold permanent positions. They had not gained in the previous strike in the same way that the miners had. Being permanent, and an intermission of their labor working a permanent injury to their mines, it has been the unwritten law of coal strikes that a pumper could keep on working in a strike without being a "scab." Calling them out in a strike was like cutting down date trees in Arab warfare. The union could have done nothing without calling out its allies at the pumps; but when it did this, it very greatly embittered railroad managers and operators. Compromise became difficult and conciliation almost impracticable when this extreme step was taken.

With labor, however, consisting of these diverse elements, the union could never be intrenched in full control of the conditions on which it yearly bargained, unless all the labor was organized. The exclusion from the mines of all non-union labor was the final aim of the United Miners' Union. Its representative verbally admitted this at the conference held by the Federation of Labor, and when this was done collision was certain.

Had the miner's union in the past eighteen months exerted the rigid discipline of big well managed unions, prevented small strikes, and worked for a cheap output, it might have divided capital. But it had not been "recognized." Therefore, its control was often loose. Local unions irritated local operators. In the Reading mines, the proportion of coal mined per miner fell one-eighth. It is part of a bad system of over-manned mines under which miners try to distribute work. Output was reduced and wages increased. The result was that the miners were without the responsible control of a big union, and the railroad managers and operators irritated by small strikes and ready for a fight.

When, at the Federation conference the miners' union was adroitly led to assert, though not as a sine qua non, the right to exclude nonunion men after eighteen months, with all the difficulties and none of the benefits of a large union, conciliation was impossible. The demand meant "control." On wages, men can bargain. On "control," compromise is so difficult as to be impracticable. It has been made more difficult in the present strike by three conditions. Anthracite railroad managers and anthracite mine operators are under a grinding competition with bituminous coal. To accept a union of United Mine Workers of America, in which the bituminous workers were two to one, was, they believed, to render it certain that on most issues the management of the union would keep bituminous mines busy rather than anthracite. Anthracite mining greatly varies from mine to mine, and a uniform "scale," as in bituminous mines, is difficult. It cannot be impracticable, for veins as narrow, tortuous, and varying are mined under "scale" in England. Small strikes, on trivial causes, have been frequent,—too frequent, in the anthracite region. This is partly due to varying conditions. Partly to the habit of an irregular industry in which, working only one hundred and fifty to two hundred days in a year, men do not mind a day's holiday. Partly because organization has been by mines. The great unions make strikes more serious when they come; but they do not go to war about trifles, or stop work because a mine boss has "sassed " a miner, or the two have disagreed on a weigh-cheek. The frequent strikes in the anthracite region have done much to array operators against any organization.

In these issues alone there was matter for collision, but all else was small by the side of the final facts on each side,—that the union could not keep its men together merely by maintaining the increase of October, 1900, renewed in April, 1901,—as it was, some 40 per cent. of the men voted against a strike,—and that the railroad managers and operators felt that they had been coerced by an alliance between capital and politics, Morgan and Hanna, and humiliated before their miners by the settlement of 1900.

This feeling (and a railroad manager or coal mine owner is just as ready as any other man to sacrifice somebody else to gratify his feelings) has bred obdurate temper on both sides. It has been deepened by the fatal economic situation of the miner. Under competition, the anthracite plant is one-half larger in mines and one-half greater in labor than the utmost demand of the public. Two-thirds of the mines and two-thirds of the men, run more regularly and systematically, could in spite of the lack of demand in summer, produce the coal cheaper and more profitably, and at a higher individual aggregate average, even if at a lower per diem or per ton than the present system. What the anthracite coal industry really needs is a reorganization like that after the London dock strike of 1889, reducing the number of men but increasing work for each. As it is, men who prefer working all the year to working two-thirds of the year, and often half a day at that, have, by a natural elimination, been weeded out steadily, and have left a large share of men, bred to a habit of irregular work and short hours. This one fact is at the bottom of much fitful irregularity in the mines.

The railroad managers, holding public franchises weighted by public responsibilities, have clearly no right, as they have all united in doing, to refuse all compromise, conciliation, or adjustment, and simply stop work, letting the public pay the cost in higher coal. They are bound either to reach an adjustment themselves, to let some one else reach one for them, or to reorganize the whole industry on a basis which will reduce the material and moral waste of the present system, where poor mines are worked and men are one third of the year idle even in a prosperous year.